This is part of a series highlighting notable entries in our 2012 Innovation By Design Awards.—Ed.
Slowing down, much less stopping, will likely get you trampled on the ever-bustling streets of New York, but Bland Hoke and Howard Chambers envision a metropolis punctuated with impromptu social spaces surrounding some of the city’s biggest eyesores. The pair met as students in the Transdisciplinary Design MFA program at Parsons and, taking cues from the prominent pedestrian plazas popping up all over Manhattan, created Softwalks—a kit of parts that includes chair, planter, counter, light, and screen that can be easily attached to the scaffolding, or “sidewalk sheds,” that obscure the front of so many urban structures.
“We were inspired by the concept of 'the city as lab’ as well as the work of Jane Jacobs and Jan Gehl, who recognized the positive aspects of social interaction within urban spaces,” Hoke tells Co.Design. Extensive testing was done to ensure the set-ups didn’t cause unwanted congestion—in fact, groups milling about were actually a boon for some businesses, as “people attract people,” Hoke says.
If the thought of loitering beneath an active construction site seems slightly unsafe, the duo discovered there is actually a glut of “passive” scaffolding that languishes curbside, doing a whole lot of nothing. “New York City’s Local Law 11 stipulates that every five years a building must undergo a facade inspection,” Hoke explains. “Unfortunately, some fail, and in the worst case the cost of keeping a sidewalk shed installed is more economical than doing the repairs. In our research we discovered an instance of one remaining in place for 12 years!” The Softwalks team is currently working with Business Improvement Districts to initiate a pilot project with the kit of parts, which will also be on display at the Dumbo Arts Festival and the Art in Odd Places festival.